DREAMI DREAMING On his debut visit to the coastal town Clive Agran learns about Ian Fleming, Ronnie Barker and the seafront’s longest bench
Despite the welcome winter sunshine, my first-ever visit to Littlehampton isn’t getting off to the best of starts – I can’t find the council offices where I’m supposed to be meeting my escorts. The handsome, white, mid-19th century Manor House that Littlehampton Town Council occupies is far more elegant than the dull municipal block I was looking for. Inside there’s another surprise, a delightful museum.
Terry Ellis, chairman of Littlehampton Heritage Group, and Malcolm Belchamber, a fourtime mayor, have kindly agreed to show me around town. Since time is limited and our combined age is 225 or thereabouts, we’re not walking on this occasion but climb into Terry’s car instead.
Whereas Malcolm, a retired estate agent, has lived in Littlehampton all his life, Terry is a comparative newcomer. Together with his wife, he spent two years scouring the south-east of England in search of the ideal place to live and firmly believes he’s found his Shangri-la.
Our first stop is unscheduled. As Terry points to a Dalmatian dog scratching at the first-floor window of a terraced house (bear with me if you will), Malcolm spots the owner feeding seagulls by the harbour wall opposite. Leaving aside the desirability of otherwise of this activity, it’s immediately apparent that Alan Mckay is a real character. The three magnificent classic cars parked outside his house, alongside which the three of us feel genuinely youthful, confirm my initial assessment of Alan as, at least, mildly eccentric.
Despite a mild clash with the authorities over the clambering canine, Alan is another huge fan of Littlehampton. “It’s an oldfashioned, family-friendly, seaside resort,” he remarks above the din of squawking seagulls.
Terry takes the car as Malcolm and I cross over the footbridge. It’s partly retractable, slides back when a ship passes on the River Arun below and replaced the previous swing bridge in 1973. A new fixed bridge was built half-amile upstream that greatly eased traffic congestion that Malcolm recalls being “pretty dreadful” on a sunny summer Sunday.
Neither of my companions are golfers and so I don’t bother telling them that the course now on our right is the oldest in West Sussex or that the legendary JH Taylor helped design it. The opening of the swing bridge in 1908 increased its accessibility and presented a couple of enterprising local boatmen – Jimmy and Peachey – with an opportunity to cash in by undercutting the bridge toll with a bargain ‘tuppeny return’.
Next to the beach is what remains of Littlehampton Fort, which was built in 1854 to thwart a possible French invasion. A combination of changes in armament technology and a receding threat from the other side of the Channel soon rendered the fort redundant and in 1891 the guns were removed and it was mostly demolished. Unconnected with any possible resumption of post-brexit, cross-channel hostility, efforts are underway to at least partially restore it.
During World War II, Littlehampton was a centre for air/sea rescue patrols and the local boatyards turned their skills to producing landing craft. West Beach, which is where we are now, was used by Allied troops for mock landings and in 1944 ships sailed from Littlehampton on D-day. And Littlehampton was the secret centre of covert operations carried out by 30 Assault Unit. Formed by Commander Ian Fleming, the unit had its headquarters in Selbourne Road. Fleming frequently stayed in the Beach Hotel (now an apartment block) and relaxed in the nearby Marine pub. As well as helping to win the war, Fleming was also gathering material for his later career as author of the James Bond novels.
The town’s considerable contribution to the war effort is perhaps more clearly personified in Jeffrey Quill, who lived in 9 South Terrace. Only the second person ever to fly a Spitfire, he left the RAF in January 1936 to join Vickers as assistant to the chief test pilot. Three months later and three weeks after its maiden flight, he flew a Spitfire for the first time before taking over the following year as its chief test pilot.
Following the fall of France, he
remarkable and, if the reviews are to be believed, so is the food.
Another curiosity stretches right the way along the magnificent promenade from the café almost to the harbour mouth. Dipping, twisting and turning as it goes, the aptly named Long Bench is 1,000ft long and can accommodate more than 300 people simultaneously sitting on it. A couple of hundred of the recycled hardwood slats are officially engraved with messages and memories. It costs £150 to have one done and the proceeds go to a worthy charity, the Aldingbourne Trust.
On the subject of money, a generous donation by the family of Anita Roddick largely paid for the bench.
The founder of The Body Shop was born and raised in Littlehampton where her Italian parents ran an ice-cream parlour and, despite the opportunity to ‘upgrade’, chose to stay living in their original home.
The Body Shop still has a town office that looks after Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
If Anita Roddick is the town’s